remnants: There Is A War

warning: this is really about an actual war

remnants: There Is A War

Last week I read Anne Helen Petersen's newsletter about the current vibe, which led me to this Vanity Fair article by Steve Kandell, which made me sit there quietly for a minute or two, before I opened up a Google Doc and was about to start writing something about why I am not freaking out about current events as much as others of my generation/age cohort are (quite rightly) doing. It bothered me a little bit that my anxiety wasn't at code red, but I left my brain to sort through it like playing Tetris, figuring I'd eventually have an epiphany while I was driving or walking along the river. Instead, I had it when I finished Steve's piece.

The epiphany is that I am not freaking out because I am suddenly facing things I have never had to deal with, because I have already had to deal with them. As some of you reading this may know or remember, I lived in Israel from 1988-1993 which means I lived there during the First Gulf War. I was going to write about that but as I sat down to begin doing so, my brain gently nudged me to remember that I already had. I wrote this in 2009, at least that's the date on the file, but I know I wrote parts of this earlier. I have edited it lightly for clarity.

It was January 18, 1991. I was living in Tel Aviv. My habit at the time was to fall asleep reading and listening to the BBC World Service. When the World Service went off the air for the night, it was time to turn the light off. 1:30am, 2am, something like that.

I heard a noise I didn't recognize. I shook my then-husband awake. "Do you hear that?"


"That noise. Sirens? Air raid sirens?"

"I don't hear anything."

"I heard something."

"Turn on the Army radio station."

When you think "Army radio station" think Armed Forces Radio. It was actually the most cutting-edge radio station in the country, Galei Zahal, "the waves of the armed force" is the rough translation, shortened to "Galatz." I flipped to Galatz. It was playing soft folk music like it had been since everything had started; the edict was that to calm the country down, certain songs and types of music were to be avoided.

"See?" he said.

"Really, I heard something. Maybe we should just get in the sealed room. Just in case."

I realize you are all sitting there reading this and thinking, OH MY GOD, WOMAN, WHY WERE YOU HAVING A CONVERSATION ABOUT THIS? JUST GO GET IN THE SEALED ROOM. And as I write it now, I wonder about it myself. But a lot of things were different then.

He got out of bed and went into the living room. "I'm going to call civil defense," he said, picking up the phone and punching in the number. "It's busy."

Yes, I thought to myself, from all the idiots who are CALLING A PHONE LINE DURING A WAR TO SEE IF THEY SHOULD GO TO THE BOMB SHELTER.

Two seconds later, there was a loud BOOM. Close enough for the windows to shake. They were old windows - it was an old building in an old part of town (not that Tel Aviv is particularly new) - but they shook. They sounded old. They sounded fragile.

"I'm going in the sealed room," I said, as he stood there, hitting redial. "You can come, or not."

This is when I tell you that the sealed room was the bathroom. Like thousands of other Israelis, we dutifully listened to the advice of civil defense and picked the smallest room in the house - in this case, a tiny two room apartment - which worked out to be the bathroom. They didn't want people going into bomb shelters because the main threat was thought to be chemical attack, not conventional missiles, and you don't want to go down for chemicals, you want to stay up.

You think you would be freaking the fuck out when you are exposed to this information. And maybe I would have, but I didn't have any family to rely on (my parents were not supportive of this move or my marriage and their solution was always, you can just move home) and the facade I was maintaining was that my marriage was just fine and dandy and it wasn't until January 17 that I mentioned to some coworkers that we didn't have any plastic or duct tape (there was such a run on these items, the ones you used to create said sealed room, that there was a black market in both) and that we didn't have a sealed room. These were my brave, stoic Israeli coworkers. They would meet this statement with approval. I needed them to meet this declaration with approval.

They all turned to me, horrified.

"Go home," said one. "Go home right now." She wrote down an address on a piece of paper. "Go here. Ask for Shmuel. Tell him I sent you. Then tell him what you need." The address turned out to be an ancient, hole in the wall hardware store. When I walked in, the proprietor told me to go away. "Noya sent me," I said.

I walked out with an armful of plastic and duct tape, and when I got home, announced the ultimatum: I was making a sealed room. He could help or he could just stand there and posture, but I was making one.

Grudingly, he got out the ladder.

I was on my own, I realized. I realized it sooner, when I had a chance to get out of the country and said no. I didn't want to leave my entire life behind, because I knew that if I left, I would never come back. My possessions - already meager when I left the States to move to Israel - were already down to almost nothing. Stupidly, stubbornly, I wasn't going to let him have everything. But equally foolishly, my parents moved heaven and earth to get me a seat on a plane going out of the country. And I said no. I said no because I would never have gone back.

I also said no when everyone started fleeing Tel Aviv. The missiles didn't go to Jerusalem or Haifa - they went to Tel Aviv. To this day, it is a miracle that more people weren't killed. The missiles landed on abandoned buildings. They landed in empty fields. They -according to legend, anyway - landed on the one bomb shelter no one had a key to, so everyone was in the other one. (After a few days into the war, civil defense told everyone to go to the bomb shelters after all. Thousands of children suddenly had nowhere to store their bicycles.

(Aside: This is something that will only be meaningful to you if you ever lived in Israel, that at some point there was no reason to keep the bomb shelter in your building [which every building had] ready, so everyone just kept their bikes there.)

I was not leaving Tel Aviv. Mostly, I was not going to the husband's relatives, who, although incredibly kind and well-meaning, were also very Observant Modern Orthodox. I was not leaving my guitar. I was not leaving my records. I was not going to be a deserter. I was a Rose. We stood and fought.

Until the night came that the missile hit the post office near my office.

"Is Nina still in Netanya?" Nina was the sister of friends. I don't remember who I asked this question to. This had been offered to me as an option earlier and I said no, because I wasn't leaving Tel Aviv. The alternative weekly coined a term - I think it was a play on the word for missile and the word for deserter - to imply that the people leaving the city were being dumb.

I no longer cared.

We fled Tel Aviv in a begged ride. I don't remember who took us up north, to the large, spacious apartment on a block near the beach. We didn't have a car, we didn't know anyone with a car, really, and anyone we did know had already left town, like we did, with the brown cardboard lunchbox sized boxes containing our gas masks in the back window of the car, along with stuffed animals and cats and pillows squished into the back window, all things I observed on the ride north. Nina was the sister of friends who had moved to Israel to go to medical school in Tel Aviv. She didn't usually live there but it was safer than Tel Aviv, especially North Tel Aviv, which is where the missiles were ending up because they were aiming for the large modern metropolis where the most people lived! IMAGINE.

Along with every other household in Tel Aviv, we changed the outgoing answering machine message. In both English and Hebrew, it announced: We are not here, we are up north, here is the phone number. I worried more about the house being broken into than a missile hitting it. (Just like we joked that if Saddam had wanted to really kill Israelis, he would have sent cars and not scuds. More people died in car accidents during the war than were hit by missiles.)

This was the period of time where most businesses closed down, so I didn't have to stubbornly insist that I was going to work. Instead, we rationed hot water and I tried to study macroeconomics. I had barely started my master's program down in Beersheva, where Boston University had a Master's in Business program, because I was not going to try to do this course of study in a second language. I travelled by bus, from Netanya all the way down to Beersheva, and then all the way back, hoping to get home before dark. "Before dark" was important because that was when the missiles came.

One night I didn't make it home in time, and had to take refuge in a jewelry store with other terrified passersby when the air raid siren went off as I was walking home. When I got back to the apartment I remember that my then-husband didn't ask if I had gotten caught out during the azaka, the siren. I didn't need this lapse to tell me anything I didn't already know. I did not have the luxury of thinking about it, because I was already not sleeping.

I couldn't sleep. My companion slept through air raid sirens as did our American hostess. I do not mean to cast aspersions on her - she couldn't hear them for the same reason I didn't know what they were the first time I heard them, either. Along with every other Israeli with insomnia, I watched TV. Israeli television normally went off the air at 10 or 11, but in their infinite wisdom, they started running programs all night for people like me. They took every series they had purchased and ran it straight through. I would watch the intro to Law & Order and sit there with tears silently streaming down my cheeks, missing New York so hard it hurt.

If you asked me what thing bothered me the most about the war, it was having to sleep in socks. I can't sleep in them; never could. I will literally wake up and yank them off my feet. But once we came back to Tel Aviv, when the country went back to work and we couldn't drive five hours each way (due to traffic), we went back to Tel Aviv, where there was no third party silently observing just how horrible my relationship was.

I wore socks so that when the air raid sirens went off, I could jump into a pair of bright red LL Bean rain boots (the only sturdy shoes I had that didn't require lacing) and run for the bomb shelter. It took us 17 seconds to get from the bedroom to the door of the bomb shelter, which was outside in the back of the building (a former school). The neighbors across the hall, who had three children, slept there every night rather than having to make the mad dash themselves. (I don't know what the upstairs neighbors did; I suspect they stayed in Jerusalem like everyone else.)

I had to wear socks.

I guess it was easier to be angry at the socks than anything else, easier to be angry at socks than at my family, calling me in hysterics, when I was the one the bombs were falling on. Easier to be angry at the socks than express any displeasure to my husband, easier to be angry at socks than call my parents and tell them exactly how bad things were and just ask for help, easier to be angry at socks than pack everything up and just go. I would like to be angry at myself and I know there are women who have been through worse but there is part of me that looks at it now and thinks, that was goddamn heroic.